The Western canon is not known for its brevity. Herodotus’s Histories clocks in around 190,000 words. Ovid’s Metamorphoses recounts the myths of the Greco-Roman gods and heroes for 130,000 words. Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov concludes in about 360,000 words. And Thomas Aquinas stares down at them all from his summit of 1.8 million.
While I love them all, there are times I need concise prose, a tightly-worded argument, a restrained scope, and a narrative that does not wander hither and thither. In short, I need a few titchy books. I need essays, tales, sonnets, and pamphlets rather than epics and tomes.
So, as the languor of summer begins, here is a list of the best books from across the Western tradition that can be read comfortably in a single afternoon.
Germania is a fascinating example of looking at another culture with a hefty dose of admiration and self-reflection. Tacitus describes one of Rome’s great enemies, the Germanic tribes across the Rhine and Danube rivers. In what is little more than a long essay, Tacitus walks readers through the basic features of Germania with sympathy and respect for many of their customs. While its historical reliability is uncertain, Germania gives us insight into how a leading Roman citizen appraises a foreign neighbor. Tacitus esteems the tribes for their love of freedom, their representative government, their family values, and their martial courage. He marvels at their religion, criticizes their laziness, and remarks about their drunkenness more than once. Rather than simply pigeonholing the tribes with the stereotypes and prejudices (though he does do this from time to time), Tacitus looks at the ‘Other’ and asks what can we learn about, and from, them.
Bernard of Clairvaux, On Loving God
Bernard was a booming preacher and a theological giant of the twelfth century. Among his many works, On Loving God stands out as a classic of medieval, contemplative devotion. Blending precision and profundity, Bernard’s little work has influenced a wide swathe of Christian thinkers from Dante Alighieri to John Calvin. On Loving God is a deceptively simple work that becomes increasingly challenging for anyone reading it devotionally. In fifteen brief chapters, Bernard describes the different stages of a person’s love for God, focusing upon the possible motives and ways to love God. The book is also a good exemplar of medieval theology and spirituality, which tended to be much more pragmatic than it is often given credit for. Also, like many great works of the middle ages, it is intensely synthetic, connecting our moral and natural philosophies to our love for God.
Marie de France, Lais
I prefer these to most of the medieval Arthurian romances. Vivid and concise, Marie’s twelve lais are a worthy counterpart to the works of other writers like Chretien de Troyes. Written in Anglo-Norman verse, the lais follow different knights on their adventures, both martial and amorous, where werewolves prowl the forests and magical boats are as real as swords and shields. However, the formality and high convention of Chretien have only a small part to play in the lais. Marie, instead, depicts a much more realistic society of courtly culture contrasted with the vast wilderness outside the walls of town and castle. Here, both women and men are active agents in conflict resolution, love can be spontaneous, disastrous, as well as redemptive, and the nobility of the leading men is regularly (and rightly) questioned.
Ben Jonson, The Alchemist
Jonson’s plays revel in the colloquialisms and grit of Renaissance London. Jonson is ruthlessly funny and willing to mock everything and everyone. Vigorous and unrestrained, The Alchemist is arguably his most important contribution to the Western canon, and it offers readers a theatrical equivalent to Erasmus’s The Praise of Folly. Stock characters like Doll, Lovewit, Face, and the wonderfully-named Epicure Mammon stumble over one another in a chaotic weekend of deception, greedy enterprise, and relatively harmless foul play. Over the course of a few days, con-artists deceive a parade of fools, dunderheads, and naves into believing they can transmute base metals into gold. Hilarious, and at times crude, the conclusion leaves the reader and audience with a self-reflexive question about who the real fools are.
Margaret Cavendish, The Blazing World
Possibly the most underrated and overlooked utopian fiction, The Blazing World outstrips even Thomas More in creativity and complexity. Where More barely cloaked his social and political commentary, Cavendish crafts a surreal world that belongs alongside modern, fantasy novels. Reached through inter-world travel, the Blazing World is filled with a variety of intelligent species with their own society, which is something akin to Narnia. In the second half of the story, the heroine (now Empress of the Blazing World) launches a successful invasion back into our world with new technology. Most importantly, the book spotlights Cavendish’s own breadth of learning, exploring a wide swathe of topics from the power of the imagination and the substance of the soul to the virtue (and vice) of political absolutism.
Henry James, The Turn of the Screw
James is known for his incredible prose, and his style in The Turn of the Screw is elaborate though never labyrinthine. Part ghost story, part psychological thriller, the book reminds me of how terrifying children can be. In the early chapters, a governess moves to a countryside estate to care for two children, only to discover that ghosts (who are former employees) roam the grounds and may be in some sinister league with the children. While the governess is smitten with the children at first, she quickly comes to doubt their virtue, particularly that of the boy Miles. We hear the story from the governess’s perspective only, which creates the most important tension in the work: We do not know what the children know, and they are not talking about it. James’s magic rests in his ability to not explain too much, resisting the temptation to reveal, or even suggest, certain things to the reader. This magic leaves us, in the end, to question the sincerity (or sanity) of the governess, and by extension what we think we know to be true.
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Adventures of Tom Bombadil
Tom Bombadil is probably my favorite character in Middle Earth. The jolly, poorly dressed, undersized man commanded trees and powerful barrow-wights. He could handle the ring of power without it corrupting him, and he even could make the ring disappear. Tom wielded power but did not seek power over others. In these sixteen tales, Tolkien’s best poetry explores the world around Tom, with elves, hobbits, trolls, talking animals, and other familiar characters. Here, we find some of the literary roots and moss, the texture and depth, of Tolkien’s imagination, when it is not being guided by a grand plot or purpose. Only a few of the tales are actually about Tom, and I think this is appropriate, since Tom valued things for themselves, rather than as tools for, or reflections of, Tom.
Michael Polanyi, The Study of Man
The Study of Man by Polanyi, one of the more unique philosophers of science in the 20th century, is the most distilled gateway into the ideas he developed in his larger works. Polanyi spent his career exploring the intellectual and emotional processes through which human beings explore the world around them. He was convinced that human thought was necessarily subjective, and it was inherently tacit and personal. His epistemology challenged the emphasis upon impersonal and purely objective knowledge that was popular in his own day; however, he never embraces intellectual relativism. There is an external world, for Polanyi, that can be known truly, but the objectivity of that knowledge will always be determined, and limited, by the knower, who was created as a subjective person.
Václav Havel, The Power of the Powerless
Havel’s essays should be read by everyone who loves liberty. Profound and incredibly influential, The Power of the Powerless identifies modern totalitarianism as a unique form of government, one which seeks to control every aspect of human existence. Havel, however, paints a complicated picture of good vs. evil. The essay does not allow us to think that evil is to be found entirely in some institution or in some bad people out there. Havel highlights the individual’s submission to totalitarian control, by “living within the lie,” as essential to totalitarianism’s success. Also, Havel insists that we confront the challenges that modern technology places upon representative democracies and recognize the possibility that in a post-industrial world the traditional bastion of individual liberty may no longer provide the guarantee that it once did.
Dana Gioia, Pity the Beautiful
Perhaps the most profound, living American poet, Mr. Gioia works within a wide range of verse, from the playful and irreverent to the philosophical and mystical. He writes with a high regard for metric forms without it hampering his verse. Pity the Beautiful was my first introduction to Mr. Gioia, and it remains my favorite of his collections. Few poets can demonstrate their love of language with the acumen and energy he illustrates in poems like “Shopping,” “Cold San Francisco,” and “Autumn Inaugural.” Mr. Gioia is a poet who believes that poetry should be read, and understood, by people who are not poets or literary critics. The title poem of this collection is an excellent example, which sings with the rhythms of both pop music and liturgy: “Pity the gods, / no longer divine. / Pity the night / the stars lose their shine.”
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